With the approaching winter in the Southern Hemisphere, South American winemakers have wrapped up their harvest and are hitting the road to share some of their recent vintages. I recently sat down for a morning tasting with Aurelio Montes Jr., the head winemaker for Chile’s Viñas Montes. While our friends who are not in the wine business look askance at a 10 a.m. tasting appointment, Aurelio and I both like tasting in the morning because our palates are fresh, though we both needed a slice of baguette to remove the last vestiges of morning coffee on our palates. Freshness was important, because Aurelio had promised to bring some “fresh wines” with him. And he did.
Montes’ Spring Harvest style takes a middle course with its beguiling aromas of stone fruit and white flowers. It has crisper acidity and slightly greener fruit, but none of the bitterness and pungency than can sometimes mar the sauvignons from the land of kiwis. This is clearly a wine with freshness at the fore – it doesn’t have a great deal of depth, and that is how it’s intended to be. “I want this to be clean and relatively simple,” says Aurelio, likening it to a white wine version of Beaujolais Nouveau (though clearly without the negative connotations that misguided red wine carries these days). To Aurelio, “this is a beach and picnic wine, crispy and fresh – it has a powerful aroma and it’s soft in the mouth. It won’t last, but it’s so good while it lasts!”
Aurelio recently returned to Chile after spending five years as winemaker at Kaiken, his family company’s winemaking project in Mendoza, Argentina. On his return, he reevaluated some of the company’s most popular wines and brought an interesting perspective to the endeavor. As the condor flies, Mendoza is not far from Santiago – just an hour’s flight (or a six hour drive) over the Andes (in fact, Kaiken is named after a wild condor that regularly flies between Chile and Argentina). The distance is deceptive, however, because the climate of the two wine-growing regions is markedly different. Chile is a narrow country and no part of it is more than a hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean, so there are ocean breezes and cool weather constantly in play.
Mendoza, on the other side of the Andes, is in an arid high desert with the mountains blocking all the moisture from the ocean to the west. Whereas Chile has plentiful rainfall, Mendoza must rely on irrigation and snow melt from the Andes for its water supply. When he returned to Santiago, Aurelio brought with him a sensitivity to water usage that is not normally a high priority for Chilean winemakers. “I wanted to bring a sense of sustainability to our work, including saving water wherever I could,” he says. The first indication of that sensitivity is now in bottle with the release of Montes Alpha 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon from Colchagua Valley, a wine whose label prominently proclaims it was “Sustainable Dry Farmed.” Aurelio measures the success of the new efforts at sustainable water usage in what they do not use: “We are not using 840 million liters of water that we used in the past. That is the amount of water 20,000 people use in a full year.”
It is generally accepted wisdom in the viticultural world that vines that struggle produce better fruit, the primary reason being the vine’s need to push roots ever deeper in a search of water. While regions with plentiful water support vines with a root system very close to the surface, the vines in dry farmed or low irrigation areas tend to go ten meters or more into the subsoil to get water, and consequently draw on a richer variety of nutrients as the roots burrow through more layers of soil and minerals.
I loved the results in the glass of Montes’ experiment. The dry-farmed cabernet has bright red fruit flavors with just a hint of spice and great length on the palate. That fruit is like a laser beam of deliciousness in the glass, and it’s backed up by very fine tannins and soft, lovely oak smokiness. There is none of the heavy caramel and vanilla one sometimes finds in intensely fruity cabernet, so the red fruit comes through. This wine is very juicy and lovely with assertive red cherry and black currant flavors blazing on the nose and palate. “That’s also because of the oak, or rather the lack of it,” says Aurelio. “I changed the use of oak for this wine [because the fruit is purer] - now I use 30 percent instead of 50 percent new French oak as we used to and so we have increased the number of older barrels.” In addition, the wine spends just 12 months in oak, and the oak is more lightly toasted and a portion of the wine sees no barrel aging at all. The final blend is 90 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent merlot. Altogether, this results in a wine that is not so much lighter as more agile on the palate, a wine of great finesse and elegance. In short, it is the sort of wine that prompts you to finish the bottle.
Somehow, Aurelio’s push for sustainability means I’m going to be buying more cabernet.